MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – It’s probably been a very, very long time since St. Thomas had to look up at Gustavus in the MIAC football standings, but that’s exactly the case as the two teams square off Saturday afternoon in St. Peter.

The Gusties have made quite a turnaround in the last year and are 3-1 entering Saturday’s contest. That mark matches the Gustavus win total for all of last year, when the Gusties won once in the non-conference and got MIAC victories over Hamline and Carleton. The Tommies hosted Gustavus in St. Paul last year and came away with a rather ugly 28-14 victory.

But for as early as it is in the season still, this weekend’s match-up has a lot on the line for both teams. Gustavus is looking to keep the momentum going on a 2-1 start to conference play. The Gusties handled Hamline and Gustavus in the last two weeks, and took Augsburg down to the wire in a 19-16 loss. That’s the same Auggies squad that nearly beat Bethel last week.

St. Thomas, ranked No. 6 in Division III, has a renewed sense of confidence after mostly using reserves in a 65-6 win over Carleton last week for homecoming. Quarterback Matt O’Connell missed the game due to illness, but reportedly is back at practice this week and will play Saturday. Even without him, the Tommies piled up nearly 700 yards of offense against the Knights.

It’s a pivotal game in many ways for St. Thomas. The Tommies need to be virtually flawless the rest of the season if they want to get back into the postseason picture. It’s their first true road Saturday game of the season, and a convincing win over Gustavus would go a long way towards building confidence the rest of the season.

It’s even bigger when you consider the Tommies travel to Bethel, a top-10 team, next week. And after this weekend’s action, there will only be one unbeaten team left in the MIAC. Bethel and Concordia, the only unbeatens left in the league, face each other in Moorhead Saturday for Concordia’s homecoming. That winner has the immediate inside track for a MIAC title. St. Thomas will face Concordia, assuming it has only still one loss, in the second-to-last game of the regular season.

Of course, none of these scenarios matter if St. Thomas doesn’t beat Gustavus on Saturday. It will be no easy task as the Gusties are much-improved from last year in every phase of the game.

Gustavus on average is outscoring its opponents through four games by a 35-16 margin. The Gusties have a balanced offensive attack that averages about 193 yards per game on the ground and about 213 yards through the air. With 15 rushing touchdowns, they clearly want to establish the run and keep defenses off balance from there.

That will be a tough task against St. Thomas, which features one of the top run defenses in the MIAC and nation. The Gusties have two key players that St. Thomas will have to key on: Quarterback Mitch Hendricks and running back Jeffrey Dubose. Hendricks is averaging about 200 yards per game passing with only three passing touchdowns in four games. Dubose runs for about 150 yards per game and has 11 rushing touchdowns.

It also appears that the Gusties feature an opportunistic defense that can turn the ball over. Through four games, Gustavus has eight interceptions and three of them are by Zach Dilger. Five other players have one interception, and there are three players in the defensive corps that have at least 20 tackles. Gustavus has 10 of its 11 defensive starters back from last year. Their top tacklers are Joe Haas and Matt Keller, who have 22 each.

While the Gusties are off to a much-improved start, they feature one of the toughest second-half schedules in the MIAC. After Saturday’s game, they still have games at Bethel, home against St. John’s and at Concordia in the regular season finale.

This is a game the Tommies cannot afford to look past with Bethel on the schedule next. They’ll have to be firing on all cylinders and execute in all three phases to leave St. Peter Saturday with a victory. Caruso has been able to do just that with his teams throughout his five-plus seasons: Focus on what’s it front and let the rest take care of itself. After all, the Bethel game isn’t relevant without a win this weekend.

If you can’t make it to the game, tune into WCCO Radio 830 AM for a live broadcast as Dave Lee will have the play-by-play and Eric Nelson will provide color commentary.